A friend’s recent social media post gives me hope for bringing this polarized country together. In it she discussed Jodi Picoult’s book, Spark of Light, and its exploration into the array of complicated viewpoints surrounding abortion. She talked about how the book opened her eyes to the possibility that there are various versions of “right” when it comes to this and many other complex and emotionally charged topics.  I was inspired by her post, and encouraged by her willingness to consider that the solution to many issues is rarely simply “A” or “B,” black or white.  Perhaps there’s hope that our divided society can return to a state of acceptance of differing viewpoints and understand that life is not always “my way or the highway.”

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know when I say that we have fallen into a deep trough of polarization.  A never-ending series of childish stubbornness with one side as dug in to their views as those at the other end of the spectrum.  When I think of it, I am taken back to my early days as a mother, when my toddlers stubbornly refused to sit still at the dinner table… put away their toys…get ready for bed… you know the drill. Arms crossed and pouty faced “NO!” Historically, children grow out of this power play as they realize that compromise and empathy are critical skills in adult-land. It’s easy to stay stuck in our viewpoints, especially on a highly polarizing and sensitive topic such as abortion. But it’s not effective.  Sadly, that’s exactly what’s happening far too frequently – the adults are acting like children.   

Here’s what my friend acknowledged:

“Reading/listening to this book really opened my eyes to having empathy for the ones I disagree with and understanding why they would disagree with me, too…it’s my belief that mutual understanding should be the basis for conflict reconciliation, not imposing impossible strongholds to suffocate people into submission…”

I write this not to debate abortion, but to use the book as an illustration of the complicated array of situations that are either hidden or neglected when forming a point of view.   As the saying goes… “walk a mile in my shoes.”

In Spark of Light Picoult walks the reader through the shoes of nearly a dozen different characters on a day when a man – whose teenage daughter has had an abortion – entered an abortion clinic in Mississippi, shot and killed some people, injured others, and held others hostage.   Those characters who had abortions in the book suffered the very real decisions and challenges people with an unwanted pregnancy face every day: being a young teen and too young for motherhood, being a victim of rape (in this case a gang rape), having serious financial challenges which would impact the future of both the mother and the child, being afraid of the consequences of confessing their sexual activities to strict parents.  There was also the brother of one of the characters who was born with Down Syndrome and the complex array of emotions surrounding the decision to bear a child who would forever require special assistance in life, including the frequent gratitude of those who choose to birth those special needs babies because they often come with magical hearts and spirits that display a purity of love and delight.  And there was the woman who gave birth at the age of 14, and hid her identity from him for her entire life, living a lie and afraid to tell the truth for fear of losing her son.

Picoult also sensitively shared assorted viewpoints about the hotly debated question at the root of the abortion discussion: “when does life begin?”   As the story of each abortion patient unfolds, the reader gets a peek into the complex array of emotions before deciding to have an abortion, and the long term sadness, guilt and emotional loss for those who go through with the procedure.  The book carefully avoids taking sides on the issue, though it is very clear that none of the characters realized how physically and emotionally painful abortion would be until after the procedure was complete. This concept was similar to the answer I gave to one of my daughter’s friends when she asked me how old someone should be when they have sex for the first time.  My reply: I can’t tell you what to do.. but be very sure about your decision, because you won’t know how bad it feels to make the wrong choice until after the fact.  This advice holds true both inside and outside the bedroom.

In the bigger picture, this book is about thinking around a situation and the many unique aspects of it, both big and small. I have often said it’s really hard being in government. Many laws sound good in theory but in execution get tied into knots when they get codified and executed. Abortion is not different.  Nor is the COVID vaccine.

We are embroiled in a Shakespearean battle: “to Vax or Not-to-Vax.”  The science shows that the vaccines are beneficial…for most. The fact is also that the vaccine has still not been tested to the extent that prior vaccines have been with regard to long term effects both positive and negative. As with abortion, and any other medical decision, individuals need to make choices based on their unique health and vulnerabilities. Rather than demonize those for whom the vaccine may be intolerable, if not deadly, stepping away from the finger-pointing and side-taking to walk a mile in the shoes of others is an important exercise.  Some have natural immunity from having recovered from COVID (another element which is being hotly debated depending on the research study that you read), or who have had negative reactions to vaccines in their past, or who have other unique health conditions that make them vulnerable to side effects of vaccines, or who have heart conditions which make them vulnerable to the myocarditis that has been associated with some of the vaccines. COVID vaccines are simply not a one size fits all issue.

If people live in blind acceptance of their group’s dogma, whatever the topic, it is impossible to evaluate what is best. Doing your own research, thinking and evaluating is an important exercise in empathy and compromise.

Net net… none of us knows the shoes that someone else walks in.  So we can’t presume to know if our point of view is right for them. We must return to openness and acceptance of the rights of everyone to choose a path that is right for them.  Abortion and Covid vaccines are probably as big an issue as we will ever face.  But on every level we need to be reminded that decisions are not linear or singular.  They are surrounded by a sometimes endless series of risks and rewards.  Pros and cons.  Prerequisites and consequences.

It’s difficult enough making the right choices for our own personal lives. And, we all want what we want.  But, since we are not living in other’s lives, we must respect others to make their own choices for their circumstances. That’s what grown-ups do.